I think we should see other people.” “Are you breaking-up with me?” “No, I just think we should see other people.”
The open relationship. Non-monogamy. She’s dating other men, and you’re free to date other women. You can even sleep with thes
e other people. In a way it’s like any other relationship, two people joined together in the search for passion, inspiration and fulfilment. Only this time the backdrop is richly coloured, varied and nuanced, never blurring in the traditional tumble-down, head-over-heels…it’s like the sun is shining just for you but from a thousand little lamps, blinking out across the city, an ocean of pleasure awaits.
Then you discover the pit of your stomach, explore it, feel it grow and tingle, constantly reminding that out of sight is not so easily out of mind. What do these other people have that you don’t? How long must you keep up this experiment, which every day feels less and less like a mere (a safe) pretence? What if your partner meets someone they like better?
Thus we have a composite of experiences of, and expectations about, non-monogamy, drawn from conversations with over a dozen individuals and couples during the past eight months. The impetus for this exercise was this writer’s own experiments with non-monogamy, as what were initially casual chats – have you ever done this before? – quickly snowballed into much more substantive discussions.
First, let’s get clear what we mean by non-monogamy: not a single man or woman dating around, with or without sex. What we mean is some kind of committed relationship, characterized by feelings of affection and respect. The sort of relationship where you would describe the other person as your partner, boyfriend or girlfriend.
Alice and Paul are a good example. (Not their real names.) They have been living together for a few years, during which time both have taken several lovers. (Did you know there is an iPhone application that tracks a woman’s menstrual cycle? Alice uses it to make her rendezvous doubly safe, it’s one of their rules. The other is perfect honesty.) They tell each other all about their lovers, what sorts of feelings or emotions led to the attraction, and in the process learn a huge amount about each other. Alice and Paul are the most ‘in love’ couple I have ever seen.
Alas, Alice and Paul are also amongst a very small minority of people with positive views of non-monogamy. Ask around Oxford (or even New York, my former home) and one is much more likely to encounter uncertainty, suspicion, even hostility.
“I think it makes sense in theory, but there’s no way I would be comfortable with that.”
“I could do it, but I know my partner wouldn’t be able to handle it, so I’ve never raised the question.” (How could you know this if you’ve never asked? “I just know.”)
“No.” (While shaking an index finger back and forth.)
Why so much negativity about non-monogamy? After all, from an evolutionary perspective, non-monogamy seems to make a lot of sense: the chances of successful reproduction are enhanced, for both males and females, by taking multiple sexual partners, and scientists have documented a huge range of species that behave accordingly. (This includes humans, incidentally, who demonstrate a surprisingly consistent cross -cultural penchant for cheating, extra-marital affairs and divorce.) What’s more, to the extent monogamy benefits child-rearing (two are better than one in this expensive and time-consuming process), the impetus here is clearly temporary (even for humans), and in any event can be (and often is) satisfied with less-than perfect monogamy.
More to the point, ‘parental responsibility’ is just not the reason most people give if you ask them why they dislike the idea of non-monogamy. Instead, appeal is made to a wide-range of influences and norms, including: religion (“It is against the Ten Commandments, it’s sin, it’s just not on.”); culture (“It has a lot to do with out-dated ideas of manliness.”); social (“Girls aren’t allowed to date any of the guys their friends like. People can stake claims.”); even personal experience (“Every time I’ve tried it, the end result is everyone getting hurt.”)
Of course, regardless of what one thinks about the persuasiveness of these reasons, the fact is no one really needs to justify their practice other than to their partner. (More than one person made this point in the course of conversation with this writer. Point taken.) But what about that? Assume your partner would derive some kind of different pleasure or fulfilment from some other person. Possibly this includes a sexual relationship, but not necessarily. Would you want your partner to ignore this impulse and remain ‘faithful’ to you?
“Well… I think that’s an interesting question…”
Really? Isn’t that an easy question? If it means anything to love another person, surely it means to want for them their greatest happiness.
“Yes, but why should that happiness come at the cost of turning my world upside down?”
Why does this have to be the end of the relationship? Oh, right. See above. So much drama, but I wonder how much of it is really necessary. It’s just not clear that all those good things about relationships are zero-sum propositions. Surely we would all be better-off not throwing our feelings up like glass houses all over town. More pointedly, is the right reaction to your partner finding some more or different happiness, to wish away that happiness? Is that what you would have them wish for you?
Unless you maintain that being in a committed relationship means no longer finding other people as attractive, monogamy raises some difficult questions about the expectations we must have for the behaviour of those whose happiness we purport to care most about. It also seems that the only good answer to those questions involves thinking seriously about some kind of honest, open relationship. Time to board the non-monogamy train.